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Photo by Jodi Gillich 

by Eric Anderson

The term ‘starving artist’ is not far from the truth according to a recent survey of Canadian artists. 

The 43-page study, prepared by Hill Strategies Research of Hamilton for the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and Heritage Canada, identified 140,000 Canadians as artists.  The findings paint a bleak picture of the quality of life Canadian artists experience as they try to earn a living.

Of the 140,000 artists analyzed, 43 percent earned less than $10,000 dollars in the 2005 calendar year.  The overall average wage for a Canadian artist in the same year was $22,731, compared to the $36,301 earned by the average Canadian worker.

The plight of artists in Canada is not a new trend.  Since 1990 there has been a steady decline in income earned by artists, and that decline will likely continue as Canada enters into a period of recession. 

This means that most Canadian artists will have to look for other financial means to support their artistic endeavours.  Michael Benoit, a local painter and graphic design artist, works at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum as designer and research technician.  He said that working at the RSM was not his career goal, but that the income allows for more creative freedom. 

“Because I have a steady income at the museum I can pick and choose which freelance projects I want to take on.  Plus, I have the backing and approval from my employer, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my day job.”

Sandra Butel, artistic director for the Regina Folk Festival, has worked with artists from around the world.  She said that artists have a difficult time making a living at what they do.

“The life of an artist is one that takes a superb amount of drive and dedication, and a huge amount of plain hard work—not to mention talent.” 

The study notes that artists are among the most highly educated Canadians, and yet they remain hovering near the poverty line.  Benoit thinks this has something to do with the way Canadians view artists.

“I don’t think being an artist is taken seriously as a profession.  I think the average person is either intimidated or does not understand art and therefore does not pay attention.” 

Benoit also said  artists face a lot of overhead when trying to sell their art to the public.

“Once an artist pays for the rental of studio space, gallery space, advertising, art openings and the cost of living there is almost no money left over.”

Another obstacle artists must overcome is finding an audience for their work.  Butel said the advent of technology has created more competition among artists for their audince’s attention. 

 “ With the Internet and all the types of viral marketing, audiences are better educated but their attention is more dispersed and thus their spending is dispersed among more artists.”

The decline of CD sales and the increase of file sharing programs have resulted in loss of revenue for musicians, Butel added.  Artists now have to earn the majority of their income through non-stop touring.  For big name established artists like Coldplay and Nickelback this would not be a problem.  But an emerging Canadian artist has a tougher road to follow. 

“The issue with touring is that unless you are a solo artist, the travel and accommodation costs are prohibitive and presenters can’t pay you enough to cover these costs and still have there be money left over for the artists to live on,” Butel said.

“The fact that artists have to tour more jeopardizes their ability to make revenue from another job because they are not in one geographical place to go to that job.  Artists thus need huge flexibility from their employers in order to have a back up job for when they are not on tour.”

The future for the Canadian artist does indeed look dim, but there are things that could be done to help rid the stigma of the starving artist.  An increase in the funding of artistic communities and tax incentives to open more galleries are two solutions that Benoit thinks would help Canada’s artistic scene. 

Butel believes that the arts should see their funding increased by Ottawa, and she notes the economic impact festivals and other arts and cultural events have in our communities.

But beyond dollars and cents, Butel believes that the arts serve a greater purpose in times of uncertainty.

“I believe deeply that arts and culture are essential to every aspect of our lives, especially in tough economic times.  When we come together around arts and culture we become inspired to work together to overcome our obstacles and our differences and make this world a better place to live in.”

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